The overcast skies and drifting fog echoed the mist shrouding her mind. That veil had drifted over her the day Aragorn had made his choice and she had kissed him for that last time.
Arwen pulled her cloak tightly around her. She had never felt the cold so intensely, the insidious chill of the fog creeping into the folds of her clothing. But she felt it now, making its way to the very heart of her.
It was just the three of them now; Elladan and Elrohir rode beside her, as they had so many times before. She darted a glance to her right and found Elladan already looking at her, concerned grey eyes following her every move. She did not need to look to her left to know Elrohir was doing the same, although likely with a far stormier expression on his face.
She pulled her own gaze forward again. It seemed everything she encountered shattered her already broken heart into more pieces. Her time with them was growing short.
Arwen had left Legolas and Gimli in Minas Tirith. They had pledged to stay near Eldarion and her girls, for now at least, as she made this final journey with her brothers. They had wanted to accompany her but she had made them promise to stay instead.
She would have gone on her own if she could have, had begged to go alone, but her brothers, her children and her husband's dearest friends would not hear of it. The new King, despite being her son, overruled her wishes in this.
Arwen had said her goodbyes to them--to Eldarion, to her daughters and her grandchildren--each farewell a knife-sharp cut to her already lacerated soul. But she could not stay--the memories of her life with Aragorn were too vivid, too close, too real there.
Not that Lothlorien or Rivendell would be any better. He lived in her memories of those places also. But those places were changed, in a way Minas Tirith was not, changed beyond repair or return.
Arwen and her brothers entered the realm of Lothlorien but it was hard to recognize it as the domain her grandparents had once ruled. It had been Arwen's second home but now it was like any other wood in winter--the trees stripped bare of leaves, the bark uneven and peeling, the wind whipping the empty branches above their heads. The silence now was so unlike the peaceful tranquility she remembered.
"I had not expected it to be so," she said, her voice sounding hollow in the chilly mist.
Elladan answered her. "It has gradually dwindled, as Grandfather said it would. It has been years since you crossed these borders, Arwen."
"That's why he could not bear to stay here," Elrohir reminded her.
"I know he said he could not bear to see it dwindle," Arwen answered. "But I had not expected it to happen so quickly."
"Over a hundred years have passed since Grandmother sailed," Elladan reminded her. "Time ran differently all the years they resided here. Centuries of mortality coming all at once will change a place irrevocably."
Or a person, Arwen thought, not voicing it aloud. The heaviness had been growing in her in the months since Aragorn's death. Not just in her heart and spirit--even her limbs felt changed, her breathing more labored. She had grown more sensitive to the cold.
The trees around her, bare of leaves for the first time in her recall, made Lothlorien look so unfamiliar. They were still well away from Caras Galadhon, the heart of this great forest.
As if he caught her thought, Elladan spoke. "Shall we make for Caras Galadhon--make camp there tonight before we continue our journey home in the morning? It grows late."
Home. It may still be home to Elladan and Elrohir but Rivendell was no longer Arwen's home. Home was wherever Aragorn was and she had left him in the Rath Dinen, in Minas Tirith. With him gone that city no longer felt her own--too empty, the rooms and streets far too silent without his voice. His body might be in those shadowy halls but she could not join him there--his spirit was long gone.
If home was where Aragorn's spirit resided then it was certainly not Minas Tirith. It was beyond the Sea--in the Halls of Mandos, for a time and then . . . beyond. If the stories were true. But not even her father had known more than that.
Beren had tarried in the Halls of Mandos for a time and Luthien was able to bring him back. Perhaps Aragorn waited there for her, before his final journey outside the boundaries of Arda. She would know in time.
They rode in silence as the hours passed, the bare trees around them allowing the light to come through, even though the sun lay shrouded behind the clouds. It had not been as easy to see the sky from here before, unless you were up in one of the many flets or in the center of Caras Galadhon itself, in the middle of the ancient glade.
Or on the hill of Cerin Amroth, she reminded herself. The sun could shine freely there, on that hill and in the circle of trees that flanked it. She reached out a hand to Elladan. "Not Caras Galadhon."
He gave her a puzzled look. "Why not there?"
"We will find shelter for the night there, Arwen." Elrohir said.
She shook her head at them. "I do not want to see it, Elrohir. Not as it is now--abandoned, empty, dead."
"The whole forest is so, Arwen. Where would you have us go then?" Elladan asked gently, flashing a warning look at his brother to keep him silent.
"Let us shelter at Cerin Amroth," she offered. "We did not spend our days there, as we did in Caras Galadhon. The tree circle should provide shelter and perhaps the flet in the great tree is still usable."
Her brothers exchanged a glance, something that would have annoyed her in the past, and then Elrohir nodded at Elladan. "It will do," Elladan said.
"I do not care to see the ruins of Caras Galadhon myself," Elrohir confided. "It was barren enough when we last came here with Grandfather."
Her brothers did not know her personal history with that quiet hilltop among the trees. Elladan and Elrohir knew the general story of it but she and Aragorn had kept the details of that moment of binding to themselves, even after the years had passed.
Grandmother knew. There was little Galadriel had not known, whether she chose to reveal it or not. But Galadriel was far beyond the Sea now.
They made for the hill of Cerin Amroth and reached it before the daylight began to fade. The clouds parted and rays of sunlight illuminated that glade she knew so well. The flet in the great tree seemed to be in order and her brothers busied themselves unloading bedrolls and preparing their campsite for the night.
The golden afternoon light bathed the hill, the grass upon it appearing less faded than what was all around them. Elladan drew near her and put his arm around her shoulders. "It is hard to see it like this, I know. Grandmother spoke of what she tried to prevent in this place."
"It has been many years since we have ventured here," Elrohir added, as he came to join them. "It has faded far more than it had the last time 'Dan and I were here." He looked around the glade critically. "Not so much here, though. There is still a scattering of flowers on the mound, even so late in the season."
"They bloomed year round before," Arwen reminded him, a wavering in her voice.
Elrohir's strong arm joined his brother's around her frame and he gave her shoulder a solid squeeze. "It is the autumn of our people," he said. "Rivendell sees season change, far more than it ever did before."
"The Greenwood is renewed, now that it has had a century without the filth of Sauron plaguing it, but it was always subject to the seasons, always moving in time with the world around it," Elladan said. "It was never guided by a Ring of Power," he added quietly. "Never altered in that way."
"Come, Arwen," Elrohir said. "Let us sit around the fire together as the sun sets."
"I would walk a bit, while the sun still shines here," Arwen said. "Just to the hill and back. I won't stray." She could see the struggle in both their faces. Even now, the need to protect her was still so strong. "It's just over there," she pointed. "Not so many steps away. You won't lose sight of me." There was a lilt in her voice they had not heard for many months; an echo of a younger sister, long ago, exerting her independence from her protective older brothers.
Elladan dropped a kiss onto her dark hair. "Don't stray far, Arwen. The lands are safer than in years before but simple dangers such a stray wild animals still exist."
She turned to him and brushed a stray strand of hair back from his face. "I am not so helpless, you know, even with wild animals," she said, gifting him a shadow of her well-known smile.
"I know that. But I can't help it. You will always be my little sister, even though you are the Queen of Gondor," he answered.
"Queen no more," she reminded him gently. "That title belongs to another now. I am simply Arwen once again."
He wrapped his arms around her and hugged her. "We all miss him, but I know how much your heart hurts, Arwen," Elladan said.
Another pair of arms wrapped around them both and Arwen unexpectedly laughed, even as the tears slid down her cheeks. "Elrohir, you are making me feel like a little girl again," she said, her chiding words at variance with her tone--full of warmth and fondness.
How many times had the three of them stood as they did now, entangled in each other's embrace, unable to distinguish any distance from each other? It had started when she was just a little girl. Continued whenever they would have to leave her in Lothlorien. Each time the twins would return from their time with the Dunedain.
So many times during the months their mother languished in the Halls of Healing. And even more after she sailed. The day of Arwen's wedding. In the aftermath of her father's departure.
And not so long ago, at the funeral of her husband.
She tilted her head up and kissed them both, Elladan then Elrohir, their arms moving to clasp each others hands tightly. A circle of three.
"I love you both, so very much," she whispered. She increased the grip on their hands and then let go, pulling her cloak around her tightly.
The sun still brightened the hill of Cerin Amroth but the color was more muted. Closer to sunset. She stepped away from her brothers, Elladan turning back to start the fire and Elrohir leaning against a tree trunk so he could keep his eyes on her.
The grass below her feet was dry, brown mixed with green, scattered leaves drifting in the wind. But the hill had kept a more vibrant green, not yet faded, not yet brown. As she drew near she saw that Elrohir had spoken true--small white flowers still bloomed.
She was wearing riding boots but somehow she could not bring herself to tread on that mound in them. She pulled them off, leaving them tumbled at the foot of the hill and walked unshod upon the grass. Grass that was still soft under her bare feet.
Arwen didn't hear Elrohir's muttered comment or Elladan's gentle rejoinder. She didn't see them stand together, side by side as always, as they watched her walk amongst the dwindled blooms of golden elanor and pure white niphredil.
In her mind she did not walk alone.
Elladan saw her reach a hand out, as if to clasp the hand of another, although she was alone on the hill. Elrohir saw the last of the sun's rays light her face, a smile of such radiance coming over her, a brightness he had not seen in her since long before Aragorn had laid down to meet his fate.
Arwen only saw the shadow of a memory but oh how bright that memory glowed in her mind.
"I will cleave to you, Dunadan, and turn from the Twilight," she whispered, repeating those fateful words from so long ago.
This was the only home left to her in Middle Earth--this cherished spot where she had committed herself to this path. A path that would end here, she decided. Perhaps this was not where their story began but where it became reality.
She sank down upon the grass, her fingers gently brushing the few flowers that still lived on this abandoned hill, in a land long forsaken.
She was cold but the ground beneath her was strangely warm and comforting. Arwen stretched out upon it, her head resting near the last bloom of golden elanor.
She did not hear her brothers call her name. She did not feel Elladan frantically taking her hand, shaking her shoulders; she felt nothing when Elrohir brushed the hair away from her forehead.
She too had been given a choice. It was now and it would be here. She closed her eyes and the Cerin Amroth around her brightened in her mind--the lush green grass of a time before, a blanket of flowers surrounding her. The love of her life, young and full of the hope he was named for, was walking towards her clad in silver and white, just as he had when she beheld him that lifetime ago.
Aragorn reached out his hand and Arwen took it and was of the living no more.
Inspiration for this story and imagery from J.R.R. Tolkien's The Lord of the Ring, Appendices: The Tale of Aragorn and Arwen
"On the evening of Midsummer Aragorn, Arathorn's son, and Arwen daughter of Elrond went to the fair hill Cerin Amroth, in the midst of the land, and they walked unshod on the undying grass with elanor and niphredil at their feet. And there upon the hill they looked to the east to the Shadow and the west to the Twilight and they plighted their troth and were glad."